On track for success

Fresh from competing in the Junior Olympics, Ocala’s Daniella Wray is off and running toward a professional athletic career.

Daniella Wray at the 2023 AAU Junior Olympic Games. [Supplied]

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Posted August 12, 2023 | By Julie Garisto

The AAU Junior Olympic Games drew the most promising young athletes from across the U.S. to Iowa the first week of August, including Ocala’s very own Daniella Wray.

At 10, Daniella has only been competing in track events for around a year, but she’s already experienced, from a national platform, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” as famously intoned by the “Wide World of Sports” long before the junior Olympian took her first steps. 

Her big week in Des Moines, Iowa, started with some heartbreak. Adding to the overwhelming feeling of running in a huge stadium event attended by thousands, Daniella wasn’t feeling 100 percent the day of the race and had to run in an 800-meter race in the pouring rain on Aug. 1. 

Daniella Wray and mom Garnet Powell at the AAU Junior Olympic Games in Iowa. [Supplied]

With Mother Nature presenting unforeseen obstacles almost impossible to overcome, she scored 24th out of 81 runners. Her time: 2:45:32.

It was the young athlete’s lowest recorded time for an 800-meter event, which devastated her.

Daniella’s mother, Garnet Powell, reassured her only daughter. “Think about it. If your absolute worst is 24 out of 81, that’s actually pretty good,” she told her.

Still, Daniella was worried she disappointed the supporters who cheered her on and donated to her GoFundMe page, set up to help offset travel costs and other expenses. Friends, coaches and other loved ones assured the young athlete that they still love and support her no matter the outcome, and Daniella regained her perspective and perseverance.

Reinvigorated, Daniella ran her fastest time for the 1500-meter two days later, clocking in at 5:34.16 and placing 16th out of 66. 

“This proved to me that she is a fighter and a true champion!” Powell wrote of her daughter on Daniella’s GoFundMe page.

“It was her fastest time ever over this distance,” Powell beamed. “’Champion’ by Carrie Underwood is now our new go-to for inspiration,” Powell said.

A fifth grader at Hammet Bowen Jr. Elementary School, Daniella is a member of the National Honor Society and the North Central Florida Lightning track club. She made top scores on her standardized tests and continually receives straight A’s on her report card. 

Born in Jamaica, she and her mother relocated to Ocala in 2019, when Powell, a math instructor, was hired in an international teacher exchange program, and now teaches at Bowen Elementary, and, yes, Daniella attended one of her classes—and aced it.

“She started to call me Miss Powell after the class was over, and I said, ‘Uh, no, you need to get back to calling me Mommy,’” Powell recalled with a laugh.

Daniella said her mother’s support has been a big part of her early success as a runner.

“She’s an independent and encouraging and kind mom because she’s the only person I know who cheers at a track meet and that encourages me,” Daniella shared.

The two share a close bond, solidified by having to start a new life together in Florida. Powell even calls her daughter by a unique nickname, “Lexie,” short for her middle name, Lexinae. 

Daniella Wray, before running the 800-meter event at the 2023 AAU Junior Olympic Games.

But “Daniella” offered a meaning in Hebrew that stirred something inside Powell: “God is my Judge.” 

Athletic leaders from throughout Ocala have judged Daniella highly. The cadre of coaches who helped her get her start included Tony McCall, now in France training athletes in the Paralympics; Jevin Eyman; and, more recently, Brett Stanley, co-founder/director of track and field for the Spartan Chosen.

In recent months, Darrin Detorres, founder of the Ocala Distance Project, recruited her to his team, which won a state championship last year. 

“We worked together really well, so we invited her over,” Detorres said. “Daniella jumped in and had no issues taking with the distance work, despite the fact she was being trained like a sprinter for the whole year prior. …You look at her times as a fourth grader and she was running in an amount of time that a lot of the high school kids aren’t running.”

According to Powell, Daniella has distance running in her genes. 

“I’m not a runabout myself, but my sisters are distance runners,” Powell emphasized, noting that her daughter had qualified for national competitions at the beginning of the year but couldn’t compete because of an injured hamstring at the time.

After a brief recovery, Daniella rebounded and qualified for the Junior Olympics.

In school and on the track, she has exhibited motivation and self-discipline that should, in all likelihood, give her a head start in life whether or not she chooses to keep running. 

For now, Daniella can’t imagine doing anything else. Her guiding forces are Jamaican-born Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, one of the world’s fastest sprinters and a three-time Olympic gold medalist, and Usain Bolt, also from Jamaica and widely considered the fastest sprinter of all time, and an eight-time Olympics gold medalist.

And what does the budding track star envision in her future? 

“I picture me running an 800 and the announcer saying, ‘Daniella Wray, the new record holder!’”

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